Ask a food safety expertAsk Heidi Food Safety Questions

Ask Heidi, a food safety professional, will answer selected questions about food safety, safe food handling practices or foodborne illnesses.

Click here to submit your question to Ask Heidi.

Is it OK to cook and eat a beef roast 4 days after the expiration date? The meat was in the store packaging, in the refrigerator and was more brown than red in color. It has a lightly sour smell but I figure if I season it and cook it, it should be OK. Is there a safety rule? Linda

Dear Linda,

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA):

Except for "use-by" dates, product dates don't always refer to home storage and use after purchase. "Use-by" dates usually refer to best quality and are not safety dates. But even if the date expires during home storage, a product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality if handled properly and kept at 40°F or below. See the accompanying refrigerator charts for storage times of dated products. If product has a "use-by" date, follow that date. If product has a "sell-by" date or no date, cook or freeze the product by the times on the chart below.

Foods can develop an off odor, flavor or appearance due to spoilage bacteria. If a food has developed such characteristics, you should not use it for quality reasons.

If foods are mishandled, however, foodborne bacteria can grow and cause foodborne illness — before or after the date on the package.

Refrigerator Storage of Fresh or Uncooked Products
Product Storage Times After Purchase
Poultry 1 or 2 days
Beef, Veal, Pork and Lamb 3 to 5 days
Ground Meat and Ground Poultry 1 or 2 days
Fresh Variety Meats (Liver, Tongue, Brain, Kidneys, Heart, Chitterlings) 1 or 2 days
Cured Ham, Cook-Before-Eating 5 to 7 days
Sausage from Pork, Beef or Turkey, Uncooked 1 or 2 days
Eggs 3 to 5 weeks

Heidi

Is cream cheese left out for 12 hrs at room temperature safe to eat? Cathy

Dear Cathy,

According to the Food Code, Potentially Hazardous Food such as cream cheese should not be in the temperature danger zone for 4 hours. The temperature danger zone is 41-135 degrees, it is where bacteria likes to grow. The warmer the product becomes the faster bacteria will grow given the right conditions. It is not safe to eat and should be thrown out.

Heidi

I belong to a nonprofit group that makes corn dogs. The batter for the corn dogs is a dry ingredient that does not have eggs in it. The batter is made by adding water to corn meal and flour. We immediately dip the cooked hot dogs into the batter and deep fry them. We were told that we cannot use the batter to dip the corn dogs without first chilling the batter to 41 degrees. We were also told that we needed to keep the batter chilled at 41 degrees during the process of dipping the hot dogs into the batter. I do not know how we are going to maintain the refrigerated temperature during the dipping process. Do you have any suggestions? Kittie E.

Dear Kittie,

This is a little baffling to me because the batter is not a potentially hazardous food. The following is the health code rule for foods that are timed controlled instead of temperature controlled:

Time as a Public Health Control

This provision allows potentially hazardous foods to be left out at any temperature for up to 4 hours prior to service for immediate consumption or during necessary preparation prior to cooking. However, before an establishment may do this they must develop a written plan which describes how they will mark and monitor the food so that it is either cooked, eaten or discarded by the end of the 4 hours.

The establishment must submit their plan to the local Board of Health and obtain approval BEFORE they are allowed to use time as a public health control. Once a food is taken out of temperature control, it must be consumed or cooked within 4 hours or it must be thrown out. It may not be cooled, refrigerated or frozen for use at another time.

The only thing I can tell you is to refrigerate batter then place the container with the corn dog batter into a bowl filled with ice. When the ice melts replace it. It may not keep at 41 degrees but it will keep it cold. If refrigeration is available nearby, have a container of batter in the refrigerator and as the batter you are working with becomes warm put it in the refrigerator and replace it with the one that has been chilling & keep doing that. You should have some water as well because the batter will become thick and you will have to thin it out. Also, you don't have to cook the hot dogs first. Just pat them dry with paper towels. You can skewer the hot dogs up the day before and keep them in the fridge untll you use them.

Does the person that told you the batter had to be cold know it is a pre-mix and that you are just adding water? You could call the company that makes the mix and ask if it is necessary to keep the batter cold. There is usually a number on the package. I hope this was helpful. Good Luck with your event.

Heidi

I bought a Jennie-O tenderloin last April and froze immediately. It's now May 2012, can I cook it? Debi

Dear Debi,

A customer service representative by the name of Jackie at Jennie-O Turkey Store had this to say: "It is perfectly safe to use, the quality will have declined."

Heidi

After opening, how long will cream cheese keep if refrigerated? Ellen P.

Dear Ellen,

According to the Whole Foods Market website, after opening, cream cheese will keep for two weeks if refrigerated.

Heidi

It seems that every time I buy frozen bags of chicken they have freezer burn almost immediately, definitely way before their expiration dates. Why is this and is it safe to eat? Ellen M.

Dear Ellen,

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service, the product remains safe to eat, but the areas with freezer burn will be dried out and tasteless and can be trimmed away if desired.

The FDA tells consumers that freezer burn is a food-quality issue, not a food safety issue. It appears as grayish-brown leathery spots on frozen food. It can occur when food is not securely wrapped in air-tight packaging, and causes dry spots in foods.

You did not mention if you keep the chicken in its original packaging. It may help to take the chicken out of the original packaging and repackage in air-tight packaging.

Heidi

How long can cream cheese and mashed egg be out of the fridge or coolroom under HACCP rules? Robyn

Dear Robyn,

As with any Potentially Hazardous Food it should not be in the temperature danger zone (41-135 degrees) longer than 4 hours. As the product becomes warm bacteria can double every 10-20 minutes. There is a plan used for Time control instead of Temperature control and at the end of the allotted time the product has to be thrown out. You have to mark the food item with: Start time–the time it was removed from the refrigerator and put on the cold holding unit, with an initial temperature of 41° F or lower and discard time–the time to discard the food (6 hours after an internal temperature of 41° F or lower is reached).

The temperature of the food item may not exceed 70° F during the 6-hour time span AND it is necessary to monitor the food item to ensure that the warmest portion of the food does not exceed 70° F during the 6-hour period. Throw out the food item within the marked discard time. Do not store these food items as a leftover.

You should call your local board of health to check with them on the policy for Time control.

If you are local to the Massachusetts area, you may be in interested in HACCP training and certification offered by US Food Safety School.

I hope this was helpful. Thanks for contacting Ask Heidi.

Heidi

The expiration date on the egg box says April 5 2012. Are they still usable April 29, 2012? Janet

Dear Janet,

According to the Georgia Egg Commission:

The "sell by" or "best if used by" or "exp (date)" are all expressions used by the industry in various states, and are used by the retailer to assure you of freshness. The egg will continue to be fresh for at least another 2-3 weeks if it has been refrigerated from the time packed until used at 45° F or lower. As the egg ages, it does lose some of its qualities, so if you were baking a cake or whipping meringue, your cake might not rise as high as expected, and you might not get the volume of meringue you would expect, so for baking purposes it is better to use a fresher egg.

Older eggs are great to use when hard-cooking (boiled) as they will peel easier. They will keep for about a week in the shell, 2-3 weeks if peeled and placed in a freezer bag.

When frying an older egg, it will spread out further in the pan, as the white (albumen) gets thinner. When fresh, the yolk will stand high and the white will stay close to the yolk in your pan. Nothing wrong with cooking the older egg, it just doesn't look as nice.

Heidi

Our family loves turkey chili. The last two times we made it, the ground turkey has tasted "funny" once cooked. Not rancid, but different than the many other times we've made it. The ground turkey was purchased in different stores each time and was stored properly after purchase and used well before the expiration date. When the packages were initially opened, the raw ground turkey was odorless. No one has gotten ill (yet) but I'm not comfortable with the funny-different taste. Any advice? Thanks! Lisa L.

Dear Lisa,

You did not mention if the ground turkey you purchased was from different manufacturers or if it was store-ground. If you varied your recipe even slightly, it may account for the difference in taste. Ground turkey, which is bland, captures its taste from other ingredients. Last year there was a ground turkey recall. If you are concerned about ground turkey safety, swap it out it out for another protein or try vegetarian.

Heidi

I have had a bag of coconut in a tight container, in my refrigerator for over 2 years. It looks very good, but is it safe to cook with? Kay

Dear Kay,

According to Virginia Cooperative Extension "Food Storage Guidelines for Consumers:"

Packaged shredded coconut is shelved with baking ingredients. Unopened, it should last for a year in the pantry. Opened, it will last 6 months in the pantry, 8 months in the fridge, and 1 year in the freezer.

Time to toss it.

Heidi

How long are Trader Joe's veggie burgers good after defrosting? Joann M.

Dear Joann,

We put the question to Trader Joe's and here is their response, "we would recommend use and consumption of this product within a day or two after defrosting to ensure both the best experience and your health and safety."

Heidi

I intended to bring strawberry cream cheese to work with me as a snack but accidently left it out for the 9 hours I was gone. It doesn't look any different and it smells fine but I'm not sure. Is it still safe or should I throw it out? Would re-refrigerating it kill any bacteria? Kristen

Dear Kristen,

If foods that normally should be refrigerated are at a temperature above 40 degrees for over 2 hours the items should not be consumed. The sniff test is not accurate. Don't put it back in the frig. I would throw it out.

Heidi

I made Oreo "truffles" 2 months ago, which are little balls made with store-bought cream cheese and crushed Oreos blended together in a food processor, then dipped in melted baker's chocolate and cooled-hardened in the refrigerator. If they have been stored in the refrigerator ever since, are they still safe to eat? Do I simply go by the expiration date on the box of cream cheese? Carrie

Dear Carrie,

Heidi likes the recipe; unfortunately, the recommended shelf life of cream cheese refrigerated is two weeks. Better to be safe than sick and toss them.

Heidi

Can you freeze cream? Delia A.

Dear Delia,

Ask Heidi receives questions about freezing dairy products quite a bit. A good resource, which is the source of this answer, is Food Freezing Basics: Freezing Dairy Products, Eggs and Other Foods; by Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., R.D., L.R.D., Food and Nutrition Specialist; NDSU Extension Service, North Dakota State University.

Freeze only heavy cream that contains 40% or more butterfat. That is difficult to find in the U.S., however, specialty supermarkets may carry heavy cream with the 40% butterfat content. Check the label for the butterfat content.

Lighter cream or half and half, because of the reduced butter fat do not freeze well. Cream that has been frozen will not whip to its usual volume. Whipped cream can be sweetened to taste and frozen in individual size portions. You may want to freeze in a pop out ice cube tray and place in a freezer bag once frozen for future use.

Heidi

I bought a pork roast on March 4, 2012 and froze it that day. I pulled it out today to cook and noticed the use by date says 3/9/12. Today is 4/1/12, is it ok to still cook and eat the roast since it has been frozen since purchase? Grace

Dear Grace,

Not a problem because you froze it on or before the use by date. Make sure you cook it within the next couple days.

Heidi

I've heard that food poisoning through rice can be really nasty. How best to store cooked rice? We cook it, cool quickly then vacuum seal or bag it and freeze. We thaw then boil in the bag to reheat. Is this safe? Karen F.

Dear Karen,

The bacteria you are referring to is Bacillus cereus. It can occur if food is held in the temperature danger zone (41-135 degrees). This is where bacteria likes to grow. Food should not be in this zone longer than 4 hours. You seem to be doing it properly. Keep in mind when you cool items according to the food code you have 2 hours or less to get it to 70° F then an additional 4 hours or less to reach 41° F. Make sure when you reheat it reaches an internal temperature of 165° F.

Heidi

Can you freeze a homemade coconut cream pie with an uncooked meringue topping and if so for how long? Terri

Dear Terri,

You can freeze cream pie, but be sure to thaw in the fridge or the custard could separate and you'd have water on top and beneath. Also, if you add some arrowroot which will help thicken it and is better for freezing than recipes that rely solely on egg yolks for thickening. The starch stabilizes the custard to make it less likely to separate. They'll keep for up to 2 months, but are better if you have them sooner. You could freeze the crust and filling separately, this way you reduce the chance of the crust becoming soggy. I wouldn't freeze the meringue because it will weep (loose water) and become flat.

Heidi

How long can cream cheese icing be kept out – it would be in a party room – not outside in the sun? Mel

Dear Mel,

According to the Food Code, Potentially Hazardous Food such as cream cheese should not be in the temperature danger zone for 4 hours. The temperature danger zone is 41-135 degrees, it is where bacteria likes to grow. The warmer the product becomes the faster bacteria will grow given the right conditions. Bacteria like moisture, low acidity, oxygen. It does not like high sugar which I am assuming you will add a fair amount of to the cream cheese. I would keep it refrigerated until a half hour before you serve it then refrigerate when everyone is done. Depending how warm you home is I wouldn't have it sit out for any longer than 2 hours.

Heidi

I have been researching food laws regarding refrigerating cream cheese frosting and found conflicting answers. I found that if a recipe calls for enough sugar the frosting will be preserved for a period of time without refrigeration. Can you help with this issue? All the bakeries I have seen have their cream cheese frosted cupcakes out at room temperature, so am I to assume this is ok? Krissy

Dear Krissy,

From a food safety view and for peace of mind I would say you need to refrigerate cream cheese frosting. Technically, you have two hours to leave it out, but you could probably get away with a little longer, especially if it's not sitting in a hot room or direct sun. I find if I take the cupcakes or cake with cream cheese frosting out of the fridge an hour to an hour and a half before I want to serve it's fine. Cream cheese by itself is considered potentially hazardous which means given the right conditions bacteria will grow. Although having it mixed with sugar can stabilize it because bacteria do not like high sugar. That being said, I don't know the exact proportion of sugar to cream cheese that changes the chemistry of the product. You could call your local health agent and ask them because they go into the bakeries twice a year to inspect them; I am sure or I would hope this is something they have reviewed with them.

Heidi

Can you partly cook a brisket or pork roast in a smoker, cool it down refrigerate or freeze it and finish cooking it another day? Paul D.

Dear Paul,

You should never brown or partially cook pork, then refrigerate or freeze and finish cooking later. If there is any bacteria present it would not have been destroyed and it increases the risk of food-borne illness caused by harmful bacteria.

Heidi

I want to know if there are any food regulations on adding dry ice to a consumable food item such as a beverage? Adrian G.

Dear Adrian,

It is okay to add dry ice to a beverage as long as it is Food Grade which means it has to be made from the same quality CO2 used in soda fountains. Make sure you do not serve the dry ice when ladling the beverage from the bowl to the drinking glass, also do not eat the dry ice. Do not add regular ice to the beverage in the bowl, put regular ice cubes in the glass if you want the beverage to be colder. Keep in mind this is a frozen product and handle carefully it can cause freezer burn. I would talk to the company you are purchasing from before you order it for safety tips.

Heidi

Is it safe to eat cantaloupe in Fort Lauderdale, Florida? Caryn

Dear Caryn,

You did not mention where the cantaloupe was purchased or whether it is whole cantaloupe, cut-up or part of a fruit medley. Florida was not one of the states included in the Jensen Farms cantaloupe recall. However, it never hurts to ask the store manager to verify the cantaloupes they are selling are not subject to the recall.

Heidi

I purchased a cantaloupe from Wal Mart about 2 weeks ago. I just ate it this week. I did not know about the recall. Do you think I will be ok or what should I do? I have the tag that was on the mellon and it does it have any numbers on it that would tell if it was recalled? Thank you for your time and response. Carol D.

Dear Carol,

Thank you for writing. Please continue to visit our website and blog to get the most recent updates on the cantalope recalls. As far as your particular incident:
a) if you did not finish it, return the uneaten portion to the store and speak with a management person to get answers; and
b) call your physician to make the determination of how to follow up medically.
I hope this helps.

Heidi

I bought a Kandy cantaloupe from Walmart Thursday. Is it safe as I have not eaten it yet? James S.

Dear James,

Always be safe rather than presume. Read the recall (a couple more states were added the other day) for a list of affected cantalope. As I always recommend, if in doubt, return to the place of purchase or toss it out.

Heidi

I became ill after eating a cold pre-made salad from Trader Joe's. I know it was the salad, I ate nothing else. I like these type salads and have them often, however, I'm wondering if the chances of food illness are higher with such prepared cold salads since they require a lot of handling in preparation? Richard M.

Dear Richard,

Thank you for writing. First, I'll ask you to contact Trader Joe's. Their Quality Assurance Department is top notch and will help you resolve this situation. You may also want to contact a health care professional.

Prepared salad companies are under close scrutiny to observe and implement the highest food safety standards in the industry to protect against food borne illnesses. I feel very confident when purchasing any prepared products from Trader Joe's that it's produced under the strictest sanitary conditions. I'm sure they'll help you with this and, you too, will feel good about their products.

Heidi

Is it safe to eat buns that have been frozen with an expiration date of 8-4-2011? They were received just a couple of days before that date. Barbara J.

Dear Barbara,

It's always a tough call to give an accurate response with a personal home question. With the information you provided, I'd say yes. Most commercially baked breads are usually good for several days after their printed expiration date. The first tell tale sign of a bread going bad is that it will begin to form blue mold spots (before it was frozen or after it's defrosted).

Heidi

I purchased an Annie's product out of a vending machine at work. This is one of three bags that I know to be REALLY bad tasting and I saw there was a recall of the larger sizes of the product (not the 1 oz. size that I had). I read online "Annie's has determined that the recalled items are not a health risk" – when customers complain and there is a recall, is there a third-party agency that checks the product? Seems kind of strange that Annie's would be the sole company that checks into it? Tate

Dear Tate,

You didn't tell me which item you purchased. We wrote a blog about some "questionable" Annie's products a few weeks ago. Usually if a federal agency receives a complaint (or several) they will do their own internal testing for bacteria and wholesomeness. If in fact the product is recalled, it is usually under the guidance of a federal food agency.

Don't let your purchases go unnoticed. Call, write, or e-mail the company and give them very explicit details about the faulty product. Any reputable company will at least refund your money and, quite often, supply you with V.I.P. coupons for other products they make.

Heidi

I mixed ground turkey (Cargill's brand) with ground beef and made meatballs for sauce. That was about 3 weeks ago. I have been having discomfort in my abdomen. If it were tainted would I still be having symptoms? Will sour milk make you ill or will it just taste bad? Nancy S.

Dear Nancy,

The tainted ground turkey could be the problem for your stomach pains. The whole process of food illness can take a few weeks to run its course. Please contact your physician now and if he/she can't see you immediately, go to an emergency room. If in fact you are ill from the tainted ground turkey, this probably won't get better on it's own.

Sour milk will taste bad and can make you ill if consumed. Again, seek professional medical advice (call your doctor) any time you or a loved one is experiencing continuous stomach cramping. The cause may even be something you didn't expect. But, as always, "better to be safe than sorry." I hope this helped. Be well.

Heidi

Is it safe to freeze prepared chicken salad? Joseph C.

Dear Joseph,

If the salad is made with mayonnaise, I'll say no. You won't like the results when thawed out. The mayo will break down (as well as any veggies i.e. celery) and cause a watery product. Many claim that Miracle Whip freezes well although I've never tried it.

Heidi

Do you need to processs a jar of homemade sun-dried tomatoes? We grew an abundance of Roma tomatoes. Online sites say to place the sun-dried tomatoes in a jar, cover with olive oil, garlic, herbs. How long can this be stored and can they or should they be processed? We have tried our local and State Extention offices. Nobody knows anything about this. Thank you for any help. Kit

Dear Kit,

It sounds like you've already processed the tomatoes if they are sun-dried. I think you're asking if they can be stored in oil. The answer is yes as long as they are completely submerged in the oil. Answering "processing" questions are always a bit tricky because they are more technical than the home cook thinks they are.

Heidi

Before we knew of the recall, I fixed this turkey (the recalled turkey) for my family last night. Nobody has gotten ill. Does this mean it's okay to eat it? Or should I throw the remaining food away? Lori W.

Dear Lori,

First, keep an eye on family members for any stomach uneasiness. If any situations occur, seek physician assistance immediately. Fortunately, not everyone that eats tainted meat gets sick. This depends highly on the wellness of each person's immune system. Also, chances for illness decrease heavily when the suspect protein is well cooked - thoroughly. Personally, I'd wrap the leftovers tightly and hide them in the fridge, only to be kept should they need to be sent to a lab if an illness occurs. After a couple of days, toss it out. No need to "play with fire."

Heidi

When I buy ground turkey, I immediately divide it up and freeze it in plastic ziplock bags, and I don't remember the brand, so I don't know if what I bought is any of the tainted ground turkey between February and August of this year. If I cook it well, do I have to worry about Salmonella? Susan

Dear Susan,

Official government agencies say that a thorough "cook thru" of the meat will kill off the bacteria. My "if it was me" comment would be to throw it out. Penny wise and dollar foolish would apply here. Take your smaller losses now rather than risk the expense and devastation of a serious illness to your family.

Heidi

Hi, I was soaking some chicken fingers in milk for a meal I was going to make tonight. My hubby ended up bringing home pizza for dinner. We won’t be eating at home again until Monday night (3 nights from tonight). Neither the chicken nor the milk will be expired before then. Is it ok to leave it marinating that long? Will the chicken dissolve or will I still be able to cook it as normal? (I was going to fry chicken fingers.) Jennifer M.

Dear Jennifer,

This one slipped thru my e-mails. Sorry. You are right in thinking that 3 days in a milk solution might break down the chicken proteins. You’d have been better off drying the chicken and freezing then tossing out the milk. There’s always a chance that leaving alone over the weekend would be ok, but ...

Heidi

I read an item that said that because of a feed that chickens get(roxarsone-3-nitro) the chickens have arsenic in them and something that causes cancer. Is chicken safe to eat or should we stop eating it? Also are their eggs affected? Emilie R.

Dear Emilie,

One of our bloggers wrote a great piece "Chicken eaters, how’s that arsenic been tasting?" on this matter. Studies concluded that trace amounts of arsenic have proven to be passed onto humans from chickens that are fed this particular feed. These preliminary studies will face public scrutiny this week as this info becomes more widespread. There have been no conclusive studies on the effects of our consumption of chicken eggs. Stay tuned. We’ll bring you updates as soon as we get them. By the way, I’m a big poultry fan and my family will continue to eat chicken.

Heidi

I opened a new large jar of Vlasic pickles seasoned with Sea Salt and it fizzed up and spilled over exactly like a bottle of soda that has been shaken. I’m afraid to eat any of the pickles. Is this an indication that it is spoiled and what can cause this? Thank you. Susan E.

Dear Susan,

Your description sounds like a simple case of "new crop pickles." There is nothing to be really concerned about. If you were to eat them, they’d be "fuzzy" on your tongue. This happens to many vegetables (especially onions) that may require a pre-soak before packaging. Just return to your store and send a quick e-mail or letter to Vlasic. I’m sure they’ll be very happy to remedy your situation.

Heidi

Does a cake with cream cheese based frosting (carrot cake or red velvet cake) need to stay refrigerated? Is it safe to eat if it’s been stored at room temp. for several hours? The woman at the bakery said it was ok to leave at room temp. Thank you. Joyce

Dear Joyce,

I’m a big believer in "if it comes out of the fridge, it goes back in the fridge." But today, there are many imitation products that have the same characteristics as the "real thing." Was it being sold out of refrigeration at room temperature? If the bakery says it’s o.k. to go without refrigeration, then... The rule of thumb for product out of the safe zone (below 40°F) is no longer than a couple of hours. Know your food purveyors.

Heidi

I’m wondering if there are Federal laws governing the cleanliness of food service workers i.e. wait staff, butchers in markets, etc. I recently noticed a young man who sold me some hamburg, that his hands were filthy. When I complained to the manager, he practically laughed in my face. And whatever happened to the requirement for hairnets for food service workers? Thanks! Diane K.

Dear Diane,

The Feds pretty much leave this up to the states although there are Federal guidelines thru USDA and FDA for businesses. State agencies and local health boards are the governing agencies in the cases you mentioned. Please contact your local Board of Health to voice your issues. They should respond to your concerns immediately. Hair restraints should be in use in all food establishments but again, check with your local officials.

As for your local store, I have a couple of suggestions. First, I would have handed the store manager my package of ground beef and said "no thanks." Then, I’d go to my computer and write a "review" of my recent experience. It’s amazing how virally fast this can get around to future patrons.

Heidi

How can you be sure that someone did not pick out meat and leave it somewhere in the store and an employee puts it back not knowing how long it was out? Will cooking it to 160 degrees kill E. Coli and Salmonella? Houseware Mama, via twitter

Dear Mama,

This is a difficult but serious situation. You never know for sure if a refrigerated product was left out too long. It can happen in several locations throughout the supply chain. We have to trust our marketers to insure our food supply is safe. These two bacteria can be cooked out of foods. The product should be heated to an internal temperature of 170°F to almost a well done state. Of course, this isn't ideal to most people who prefer a bit of redness in their proteins. Know your meat supplier – it's my best advice.

Heidi

I was affected by a meal at a popular local restaurant, 24 hours of vomiting, cramps, etc. I could barely move. Do I report it? Melinda

Dear Melinda,

First, are you feeling better now than at the first signs of being ill? If not, seek medical help to be sure this is under control. Regarding the restaurant, make sure this meal caused your illness. Did anybody else in your party eat the same items and get ill? Call the restaurant immediately and speak to the manager. Tell the manager your situation and ask what to do. If you feel the situation warrants, call the local board of health in the city where the restaurant is located. If you feel this needs more attention, call your state's health department and tell them your situation. Yes, report it so it can be on record.

Heidi

I found a piece of plastic in a bottle of sauce: size 1/2" x 1/4" x 1/8" thick. What should I do about it? Thank you for your time. Patricia W.

Dear Patricia,

First, I'm assuming nobody is injured. Wash off the foreign piece of plastic and wrap in bag or film. Keep sauce in tact, if refrigerated, keep it so. Now, call the manufacturer and speak to customer service. Don't leave a message. Speak to a live person. Tell them how you found it. They might ask for it back or at least a very good description as well as any lot number or date on the container. If they ask for it back and you prefer to keep it for now, consider taking a few photographs and sending the photos instead. They should offer a replacement and if it's a good customer oriented company, offer you coupons for several more of their products.

Heidi

And a follow-up ... Thank you for your comprehensive reply, except, shortly after sending the question I realized I made a mistake. The plastic piece came from our pepper grinder. I'm so glad it didn't have to do with product contamination. Again, many thanks. Pat, 5/20/2011

I read today that Jennie-O turkey burgers had been recalled. I have a Jennie-O all natural, golden roast, turkey breast. Already cooked. Is this ok to use? Catherine D.

Dear Catherine,

Raw and cooked products from the same company are usually cooked in different areas of the production facility or in a different plant altogether. If Jennie-O had any questions or concerns about their cooked products, they would have reacted by now. I feel pretty confident that the cooked turkey is o.k. to eat.

Heidi

Why do we cook eggs for immediate service to 145 degrees but we must cook chicken to 165 degrees and we are concerned with Salmonella in both? Kathy B.

Dear Kathy,

These are guidelines for cooking temperatures that have proven out to be the minimum safe temperatures for consumption. Cooking below these temperatures can promote the growth of bacteria. If you cook eggs or chicken in a microwave, the suggested cooking temperature is 165°F. These temperatures are the guidelines used by restaurants and food processing facilities throughout the country.

Heidi

I was give some evaporated milk with the date of 8-24-10. Would the milk be safe to use or should I throw it away? Thanks for your help. Joyce

Dear Joyce,

As I always say, I prefer to err on the side of caution. This is a fairly inexpensive product and "when in doubt, toss it out." I'm sure you'll feel better than serving it to your family.

Heidi

How long can frozen dinners be kept? Suzanne C.

Dear Suzanne,

Unfortunately, there isn't one answer that can apply to all frozen dinners. There should be handling instructions for frozen as well as the later cooked dinners on the package. If not, look for a phone number on pack to call the manufacturer to ask. Generally speaking, if the frozen product is in a cryovac (air-tight) package, no more than 3-4 months. A product not tightly sealed, less than 2 months. The frozen product may last longer but it may begin "breaking" down and lose some of it's nutritional value.

Heidi

How long is a store bought penne vodka sauce in a glass jar good for after opening and refrigerating? If it has been opened and kept refrigerated for more than two months and someone has eaten it, is there any danger of food poisoning or getting sick from that? Would mold have grown in that sauce but it will not be noticeable since there are green oregano in the sauce, it will be hard to tell? Jenny

Dear Jenny,

With the information you've supplied, it's tough to give a scientific reply. Most shelf stable products have a use-by date somewhere on the jar. There should be "handling after opening" instructions also. But, having said that, there is always a chance of bacteria entering the opened jar during service. I'd suggest tossing this jar out. If someone were to get sick, it would probably happen very soon after consumption - usually stomach cramping and diarrhea symptoms. Molds are another issue and come in a variety of colors. Molds shouldn't be any problem. Try to remember my favorite refrigerator expression - "when in doubt, throw it out."

Heidi

Hi Heidi, is there any way Trader Joe's pacific salmon could already be tainted with radiation? Thank you! Chad W.

Dear Chad,

Good question. Most Pacific salmons originate off the U.S. coast, particularly the northwestern U.S. To date, all radiation monitoring in the U.S. and our territories has proven negative to high levels. I know that Trader Joe's is very sensitive to this situation and is monitoring it closely. As more information becomes available, I will keep my readers updated. Thanks for asking.

Heidi

I discovered this morning that my deep freezer had been left slightly open for 4 days! Of course, everything is thawed out and warm. Is there any chance of saving the meat? Lisa

Dear Lisa,

This is a tough call. The meat being thawed out could be ok. When you discovered the meat, was it above 40 degrees Fahrenheit? This is the critical point to determine if the meat is ok to serve. The FDA has determined that proteins cannot be stored above 40 degrees for longer than 4 hours and still be considered safe. These are the rules they impose on foodservice and food manufacturing establishments. I always prefer to err on the side of being safe than that of a gambler. I hope this helps.

Heidi

I absolutely love fresh salmon season every summer. Could the Japanese radiation affect this Summer's Alaska catch? Sam R.

Dear Sam,

Good question. We all hope the Japanese situation is resolved soon. Vietnam officials announced today that the radiation hasn't hit their waters as their seafood testing is still negative. All experts claim the situation has to become much worse before we see any effects to out hemisphere. Stay tuned. Our website will keep you up to date on the situation.

Heidi

We eat Trader Joe's roasted seaweed snack. It is a product of Korea. Is it safe to eat considering nearby Japan and the radiation problem? Thank you! Kathy E.

Dear Kathy,

I don't want to comment on any particular product without knowing all of the facts. So I contacted Trader Joe's to give us precise information about the Seaweed product. Their response: "Thank you for contacting us. The seaweed used in this product was harvested a year ago, long before any of the radiation concerns. Thank you for shopping with Trader Joe's."

I'm sure TJ's QA department will stay on top of this situation.

By the way, if you or any friends who shop at Trader Joe's have a wheat allergy, an allergy alert and recall was issued yesterday for Trader Joe's Pizza Al Pollo Asado (Frozen).

Heidi

My local market has my Easter ham on sale this week. Is it too early to buy it for Easter on April 24? Should I freeze it if I buy it tomorrow? Kathy

Dear Kathy,

Most hams have lengthy shelf life codes. Just check the package and you can feel assured that it's not too early to buy.

I highly suggest never to freeze a ham. Most hams have water or a liquid injected as a brine. By freezing it, the liquid will expand (liquids expand when frozen, just look at your ice cube tray) and cause the meat to break down and possibly get "mushy."

Thanks for writing and enjoy the holiday with your family.

Heidi

Is it safe to eat imported foods from Japan? What about milk from the US? Carmen

Dear Carmen,

First, let us all place our Japanese friends in our prayers. The catastrophe in Japan will have many long range effects on our world for years to come. We hope the radiation threats and fears are eliminated quickly. Our government has several "radiation testing centers" set up along the west coast to monitor any changes to our air quality.

Most foods we import from Japan are processed and packaged. Products here now were probably arrived months ago. These foods would not have received any abnormal radiation levels. Any perishable products shipped within the past week may be questionable.

Our dairy products at this point should be fine. As we monitor and see the radiation levels in the next few weeks, I'll be sure to keep you informed. As with any food products, if you have doubts, throw it out.

Heidi

Where, how, do i get my food handlers permit? Shelby

Dear Shelby,

Food handlers' permits are generally issued by the town or city in which the event occurs or the restaurant is located. Start at your town hall where they will probably direct you to the Board of Health. You can also get a start by visiting the website for your town. I'm sure that your town hall employees will be very helpful. Thanks for asking.

Heidi

What is the criteria to determine the sources of nutritional information on the recall of Skippy Peanut Butter (March 5, 2011)? xmaspat

Dear Xmaspat,

I'm not sure if I understand your question. Let me give it a try. Nutritional information and a recall due to Salmonella (in any product) have no correlation. Nutritional information is determined through a battery of tests in a certified laboratory. This information is then used on the package.

Salmonella is a classification of bacterial microorganisms. According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Salmonella can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems. Healthy persons infected with Salmonella often experience fever, diarrhea (which may be bloody), nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. In rare circumstances, infection with Salmonella can result in the organism getting into the bloodstream and producing more severe illnesses such as arterial infections (i.e. infected aneurysms), endocarditis, and arthritis.

Heidi

How long is the most persistent, infectious microbe able to infect a diner who takes a carry out container? Is the source: the food itself, the server who spooned it into the container, the forked contamination of the diner or something else? What could the diner do to reduce this threat? Rose

Dear Rose,

You asked several very pensive questions. There is a large amount of microbiology to answer in detail. To respond fully will take too much time for our consumer Q & A column. I will tell you to frequent only establishments that are clean and have a professional management staff in sight. If you ever have questions about the sanitation history of a location, the local Board of Health will be able to respond to your concerns. Happy eating.

Heidi

I asked a server at the Longhorn restaurant why their fried potatoes were not on gluten free menu. I was told their potatoes have gluten. Rick H.

Dear Rick,

My first inclination is that their fries are "breaded" before frying. But, I sent an inquiry to the Longhorn customer service department. They sent back a very polite "form letter" without a direct reply to my question. While we commend the server for being informed, it is unfortunate that we didn't get a better corporate response. In the meantime, continue asking servers about their gluten free offerings.

Heidi

I recently got a piece of venison from a friend. It was frozen so I defrosted it however I had to leave for a month so I left the meat in very salty water for a night, then marinated it in beer the next night, and then I put it back in salty water and put it in the freezer for a month. Would it be safe to eat? It looks very dry and the water has evaporated leaving lots of salt that covers the meat. It doesn't seem to be rotten either and I don't want it to go to waste. Thank you for your help. Nadim

Dear Nadim,

There are several issues here:

  • a) salt water freezes at various temperatures depending on the amount of salt thereby, possibly not allowing a "solid" freeze on the meat.
  • b) you don't know how your friend held the meat previously. Was it frozen at a very fresh stage or after being held for a while?
  • c) how sanitary was the kill and slaughter?
  • d) your salt brine will dehydrate the meat so it will appear to be very dry.

My recommendation, unfortunately, is you're better off throwing the meat away.

Heidi

If I leave milk on the counter for 6 hours and it is wicked warm can I still drink it? Melissa

Dear Melissa,

I guess you forgot to put it away. Temperature is the most important factor. If milk is allowed to warm above 45°F, discard it.

Heidi

My PBJ has a funny smell. Can I still eat it? Kathy

Dear Kathy,

If you mean peanut butter and jelly on bread, don't eat it. The "sniff" factor is not always an indicator of whether you should eat it. I would suggest you purchase some new P, B & J and toss the funny smelling items.

Heidi

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